NASA is planning to replace its Martian rovers with 'robot bees'

NASA is planning to replace its Martian rovers with 'robot bees'

For decades, the dream of NASA scientists, and other space agencies around the world, has been to find some trace of life on Mars. The red planet is the Earth's closest neighbour, and the one body in the Solar System most likely to be capable of supporting life, other than our own world. Despite the freezing temperatures and arid dust, NASA hopes that their exploratory vessels might be able to find a trace of liquid water, or a tiny microbe buried in the soil. But unfortunately, the search for extraterrestrial life thus far has been difficult, expensive, and fruitless.

The issue is that the Martian rovers can often be too cumbersome to safely navigate the vast, rugged terrain of the fourth rock from the sun. The slightest chance accident can potentially tip the little machines over, and leave them as helpless as a tortoise on its back. Not only that, but they're also unbelievably slow. Just consider the fact that, even though the Curiosity Rover has been on Mars for more than 2,000 days, it's only managed to travel about 11 and a half miles.

Engineers celebrating in NASA's control room. Credit: Getty

To counteract these issues, NASA is proposing replacing the wheeled contraptions with an altogether newer, slicker solution. The only problem is, the idea seems too mad to ever get off the ground (literally). Instead of building new rovers, NASA is looking to bring out a swarm of "robot bees".

Researchers based at the University of Huntsville, Alabama, are collaborating with a separate research team in Japan to create "Marsbees". Taking inspiration from the ergonomics of real-life insects, these miniature drones would be approximately the same size as a bumblebee, but with far larger wings to help them fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars. The tiny droid would fly around in large clouds, to comprehensively survey the planet's surface and scan it for useful chemicals and other minerals. The Marsbees would also launch themselves from a mobile base, which would act as a communication hub and recharging station.

Commenting on his proposed design in a blog post, aerospace engineer Chang-kwon Kang stated: "Key technical innovation includes the use of insect-like compliant wings to enhance aerodynamics and a low power design. High lift coefficients will be achieved by properly achieving dynamic similarity between the bio-inspired insect flight regime and the Mars environment. Our preliminary numerical results suggest that a bumblebee with a cicada wing can generate sufficient lift to hover in the Martian atmosphere. Moreover, the power required by the Marsbee will be substantially reduced by utilising compliant wing structures and an innovative energy harvesting mechanism."

Prints left in the sand by the Martian rover. Credit: Getty

He added: "From a systems engineering perspective, the Marsbee offers many benefits over traditional aerospace systems. The smaller volume, designed for the interplanetary spacecraft payload configuration, provides much more flexibility. Also, the Marsbee inherently offers more robustness to individual system failures. Because of its relatively small size and the small volume of airspace needed to test the system, it can be validated in a variety of accessible testing facilities."

The team has already constructed what they call a "hummingbird micro-air vehicle", which they intend to test in a vacuum chamber that will simulate Mars' atmosphere. It will be one hundredth to one-thousandth of sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth. The concept is still only in the prototype stages, but the University of Huntsville team hopes that their robotic bees have the potential to explore areas of Mars which a land-based rover would be wholly incapable of reaching.

The fact that the Marsbees would travel around in large groups is also significant. The presence of a swarm of Marsbees means that, if there was a heavy dust storm and one of the robots was heavily damaged, then the others would be able to fly to safety, and the loss of a single droid would not spell the end of the mission.

The Marsbees would also be able to take air samples in order to detect potential methane emissions, a vital chemical in the search for life. The Martian atmosphere is predominantly made up of carbon dioxide, so the presence of other gases, such as methane or carbon monoxide, could hint at the presence of contemporary or ancient microbes.

The obsolete Martian rover. Credit: Getty

The Marsbee concept is one of 25 design proposals submitted to NASA as part of their Innovative Advanced Concepts programme. Other submissions include new meteoroid impact detection hardware, shapeshifting, amphibious robots that can roll up into a ball and roll on the surface (like BB-9 from Star Wars) and balloon-lifted platforms which can navigate extreme terrain.

Each of the proposals is valued at around $125,000 and, after nine months of work on the analysis and definition of the concepts, researchers have the option to apply for the Phase 2 awards: valued at up to $500,000 for two years of study. This is just one of many breakthroughs for NASA lately, as the search for life on Mars goes on. In fact, scientists believe even now that water has already been discovered there.


Featured illustration by Egarcigu